Distillery will be fairgrounds’ first year-round retail tenant in two decades

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A year-round craft distillery will open at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in June 2023, making and selling alcoholic spirits in Southwest Pavilion, a building that’s been used for storage in recent years.

Hi & Mighty, a company that plans to introduce its gin and cocktail products this summer, was founded by digital marketer Dan Fahrner and his wife, Jamie Fahrner. The couple brought on Nick Traeger, known for his culinary work at Patachou-owned restaurants and Traders Point Creamery, as their business partner and distiller.

Southwest Pavilion, a 9,000-square-foot facility built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, was appealing to Hi & Mighty for multiple reasons. The Fahrners live less than a mile from the fairgrounds, Southwest Pavilion is a stone’s throw from the Monon Trail, and the fair lifestyle is part of Jamie’s background, thanks to her late father’s years of running a barbecue stand at Crown Point’s Lake County Fair.

“This is a cool, historic building that can be brought back to life,” Dan Fahrner said.

For the Indiana State Fairgrounds & Event Center, the Hi & Mighty lease represents a new source of revenue for the 250-acre campus at East 38th Street and Fall Creek Parkway.

“We are always focused on finding great partners who can activate an area of our property and become a community asset,” said Sharon Smith, director of communications, in an email.

Other fairgrounds year-round tenants include the Indy Fuel hockey team, Indiana Veterinary Medical Association, Purdue Extension Marion County and Indiana State Board of Animal Health. But Hi & Mighty is the first year-round retail offering in more than 20 years.

And after losing events in 2020, including the Indiana State Fair, because of the pandemic, fairgrounds management is open to the idea of adding tenants.

“Pandemic or no pandemic, we are always looking at creative use of our campus,” Smith said. “But the pandemic exposed us to risk that we continue to work to overcome.”

The Hi & Mighty team intends to begin construction inside Southwest Pavilion in March. Because Indiana law prohibits craft distillers from selling directly to consumers until an 18-month waiting period has passed, Hi & Mighty’s target date for opening the tasting room is June 2023.

Sharon Smith

In the meantime, the company will make its Big Fuss dry savory gin, Big Heart wild floral gin and Lemon Shake Up canned cocktail using equipment at 8th Day Distillery at the Circle City Industrial Complex, just east of the Interstate 65/70 north split. New distillers are allowed to sell spirits in liquor stores and through a distributor to bars.

Anyone familiar with the Indiana State Fair’s relationship with alcoholic beverages might be curious about a seller of spirits setting up shop at the fairgrounds.

From 1947 through 2013, no alcohol sales were permitted during the fair. In 2014, the Legislature lifted the ban, although alcohol sales started tentatively, at first only at an Indiana Beer & Wine Exhibition in the Grand Hall. Since then, sales opportunities have expanded.

Smith said the Indiana State Fair Commission, which sets the governing policy for the year-round operation of the fairgrounds, doesn’t need to revise any guidelines before Hi & Mighty opens its doors. In practice, drinks purchased inside the distillery must be consumed there. Open containers will not be allowed to be carried into other fairgrounds buildings.

Emerging industry

Jeff Wuslich

Hi & Mighty will join a community of Indiana distilleries that numbers about 50, reflecting steady growth since the Legislature introduced an artisan distiller’s license in 2013.

Jeff Wuslich co-founded Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington that year. The number of distilleries in Indiana hasn’t skyrocketed to rival the number of craft beer makers, and Wuslich said that’s understandable.

“If you think about craft beer when it started, it was going up against Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light, which are fine beers for when you cut the grass or maybe at a tailgate,” Wuslich said. “But not tons of flavor. Craft beer could come in and really own that category.”

In contrast, Wuslich said, the biggest producers of spirits are known for high-quality products and compelling backstories.

“It’s not going to be quite as easy for craft distilling to take that market share,” he said. “That’s why I’m excited when I see a company like Hi & Mighty coming along. They’ve really thought it through. They’re going to be on the state fairgrounds, one of Indiana’s best attractions, making high-quality spirits. I think that’s super exciting.”

Hi & Mighty co-founder Fahrner developed his knowledge of fermentation, distillation and blending by taking classes at Moonshine University in Louisville. His company isn’t jumping into the competitive field of whiskey, however.

“There’s a lot of whiskey in town because we’re so close to Louisville, and there’s so much whiskey from Louisville,” Fahrner said. “We would be the smallest fish in a really large pond.”

After introducing its gin products, Hi & Mighty plans to develop brandy flavors.

“Our strategy is to be focused on high-growth categories that may not be totally saturated yet,” he said.

Ball State University alum Fahrner said Traeger is the “mastermind” of Hi & Mighty’s flavor profiles. The company plans to have a food partner at the fairgrounds location, but Traeger is solely focused on beverages.

“We’re leading off with gin, which is all botanicals, herbs and spices. That was the easiest thing for me to wrap my head around,” said Traeger, who also leads a rock band, Willis Miller, featuring Fahrner as a percussionist.

Finding a home

Fahrner credits real estate developer Jeremy Stephenson, owner of 1820 Ventures, for making Hi & Mighty aware of Southwest Pavilion.

“Jeremy is always looking around to see what’s available,” Fahrner said. “He had heard that the fairgrounds were interested in starting to utilize some of their buildings outside of the fair itself and their events.”

The Fahrners were big enough fans of Southwest Pavilion that they didn’t look at any other potential locations.

A bar that serves draft cocktails will be built in the middle of Southwest Pavilion, facing the public entrance on the building’s east side. The distilling, bottling and canning operations will occupy the west side.

Hi & Mighty plans an outdoor cocktail garden to the north of the building.

Smith said officials are working to designate fairgrounds entry points for Hi & Mighty customers.

“The goal is to provide easy access for guests arriving via car as well as via bicycle or on foot,” she said. “This is a neighborhood establishment, and we want it to be accessible.”

Fahrner said agriculture’s close alignment with distilled spirits helped persuade the fairgrounds to partner with Hi & Mighty.

In fact, the company hopes to grow gin botanicals and fruit for brandy on a plot of land at the fairgrounds. Hi & Mighty also plans to offer tours that show the process of making spirits from raw ingredients.

Wuslich, the Cardinal Spirits co-founder who serves as co-chair of the judging committee for the American Craft Spirits Association, said Indiana has “an incredible bounty” of agricultural resources.

“We have great relationships with our corn growers and other botanical growers,” he said.

Although no agreements are in place, Fahrner said Hi & Mighty aspires to sell its Lemon Shake Up—a 21-and-older riff on the distinctive green, yellow and white cups seen at fair time—at year-round events hosted at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Blue Ribbon Pavilion and other fairgrounds venues.

“The fairgrounds have such potential for our city,” Jamie Fahrner said. “I feel like we’re at the beginning of the potential of what this whole campus could be.”•

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9 thoughts on “Distillery will be fairgrounds’ first year-round retail tenant in two decades

  1. Interesting. Paying for parking is an aspect in real cities. Parking is ultimately not free; if not paid directly then the cost is incorporated in the item sold.

    So, one can pay 8 to 15 dollars for one or more craft alcoholic beverages, but not 10 dollars to park. How about 5 dollar parking or to lessen the risk of a driving infraction, use Uber, Lyft, the bus or kindness of friends to drop off and pick up.

    In any case, this appears to be a undertaking, parking costs notwithstanding.

    1. Paying for parking when it is limited in supply will encourage turnover and makes sense so that everyone who wants to patronize a business can do so.

      It does not make sense to charge money for parking outside of events such as concerts, sports games, or the fair. On non-event days, the fair has far more parking than is needed.

  2. Smith said officials are working to designate fairgrounds entry points for Hi & Mighty customers.

    “The goal is to provide easy access for guests arriving via car as well as via bicycle or on foot,” she said. “This is a neighborhood establishment, and we want it to be accessible.”

    I”d imagine that means they’ll figure out a way to provide parking that is free to distillery customers. I’m hopeful that they’ll indeed make the fairgrounds more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. Trying to walk to Fuel games from the neighborhood to the northwest is not inviting when the only openings to the Fairgrounds are on 38th Street and Fall Creek Pkwy, especially when the Fairgrounds doesn’t clear their public sidewalk along 38th Street.

  3. I wish them well, but this is likely a horrible business idea. Location means everything in the success of a business. Even if they can get the parking fee waived somehow, how many people are going to drive to the Fairgrounds, through neighborhoods with a great deal of crime, to buy alcohol from a craft brewery? Not many.

    1. People drive to the Fairgrounds all the time. I’m not sure whether this business will succeed. Being a bit far flung from other food/drink locations might not be advantageous for it, but I’m pretty sure it won’t fail because people are afraid to drive to the Fairgrounds.

  4. Most of the people who drive to the Fairgrounds do so during the day. That’s a huge difference from driving there at night. Most of the patrons of the business will be patronizing the establishment at night.